The Red Mountain AVA is Washington’s smallest, warmest, and maybe its most distinctive wine-growing region. The warm part has been advantage for most of Red Mountain’s history. But not any more, according to Gaye McNutt and Benjamin Smith, owners of Cadence Winery and the Cara Mia Vineyard.
Too Darn Hot
Climate change has had a variety of effects that condition Smith’s ability to make the elegant wines he prefers. Earlier harvest, potentially higher alcohol levels, sunburned fruit, tough tannins — none of these impacts is desirable. Working with vineyard manager Dick Boushey, McNutt and Smith considered many alternatives and found each potential solution problematic in one way or another.
Then they hit upon an insight — to transform the vineyard in the image above to the emerging vineyard you see below.
The result is the first vineyard in Washington State specifically designed to mitigate the effects of climate change by doubling the row density of the vineyard. First planted in 2004 at three feet between vines and eight feet between rows the vineyard is now spaced at four feet between rows.
This tighter spacing provides up to two hours additional morning and afternoon shading of adjacent rows thereby cooling the fruit, reducing the effects of high heat, and ultimately producing more elegant, lower alcohol wines even in hotter vintages.
All around the world winegrowers are facing up to the challenges that climate change presents and, because wine people are creative by nature, they are finding ways to adapt through innovative viticultural techniques. Cadence is a model of how this can be done.
The Cadence solution is not inexpensive, of course, but it promises to allow them to continue to make excellent wines and even has benefits as an opportunity to add additional clonal selections to the mix.
Peter Parker Principle
A 2000 case winery like Cadence is to be commended for setting an example of innovation to mitigate the effects of climate change. Larger wineries can do the same, but the Peter Parker Principle (familiar to all Spider-Man enthusiasts) holds them to a higher standard. With great power comes great responsibility.
Many large wineries have risen to the Peter Parker challenge. Familia Torres and Jackson Family Wines, for example, have taken the lead in forming a global wine alliance to fight climate change, the International Alliance for Climate Action. Adrian Bridge of Port producer Taylor Fladgate was instrumental in creating the Porto Protocol and the global conference on climate change and wine that Sue I and attended last year.
Many wineries embrace their social and environmental responsibilities by becoming benefit corporations (B Corps for short). Certified B Corps commit to a social and environmental responsibility agenda and agree to transparent assessment of their activities. Are you familiar with B Corps? A number of large businesses have taken this step including Patagonia Works, which has a B Impact Score of 151.2 on a scale of 0-200 (the minimum score for B Corps certification is 80 — an “ordinary” business might score about 50 points). The craft beer producer New Belgium Brewing is also a B Corp (B Impact score 136.5).
It is easy to be a B Corp skeptic because it seems so unlikely that a business really would elevate people and planet to the same level as profit in its priority list. And I am sure that some are more committed than others. But a number of my former university students have become practitioners of and advocates for the B Corp program and they have persuaded me to take it seriously (Steve, Russ, Portland, Douglas, and Colleen — I’m talking about you).
Many wineries are entering the B Corp economy. Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks became the first certified winery B Corp in 2014 and is now joined by a growing international community including Symington Family Estates in Portugal and Fetzer Vineyards in Calfiornia. Fetzer, with about 2.5 million case production, is the largest B Corp winery in the world.
The Symington Family’s sustainability program, Mission 2025, is especially ambitious and includes a recently announced €1 million Impact Fund. The primary use of the funds will be for community well-being and health, environmental protection and conservation and cultural heritage and education in the Duoro and Alto Alentejo regions where the company has vineyards.
Mapping the Road at Fetzer
Fetzer has doubled-down on the Peter Parker Principle. Fetzer and its Bonterra brand have long been known as environmental stewards and activists. Chilean leader Concha y Toro’s 2011 acquisition has given Fetzer greater scale and even deeper commitment to corporate social responsibility.
Fetzer’s 2017-2018 “Peter Parker” report, Mapping the Road, makes good reading because the range of activities and commitments is very impressive. As the report says,
Fetzer Vineyards understands that transforming the future requires not just small, incremental steps toward sustainability, but rather an ambitious framework—like regenerative development—applied to every part of its business. With the knowledge that the road will not always be easy, Fetzer Vineyards is poised to continue taking bold steps toward its vision of a regenerative, net positive company, and to be part of the movement to redefine what responsible business is all about.
One thing that I admire is that Fetzer is willing to “own” its supply chain. Many environmentally ambitious firms limit their universe of concern to their own operations, which is both practical and understandable. But wine’s supply chain is long and complex and progress in the vineyard and cellar alone is commendable, but not enough. Major players like Fetzer need to take responsibility for the whole chain. It’s the Peter Parker thing to do.
And, increasingly, they are. Congratulations to Cadence, Symington, Fetzer, and others for their leadership.